Note: This post is a living document, subject to continual revision
And here’s another disclaimer: Keep in mind that everything described here is happening on a trial basis, to give everyone an opportunity to chime in, positive or negative.
In any conversation about the future of Liturgy, the Confession deserves a careful debate. Yes, it’s important to remind ourselves on a consistent basis of our human flaws, and God’s divine mercy. The Confession helps us to stay humble, but also to stay encouraged that we are forgiven by God unconditionally, because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.
The truth of all this notwithstanding, it is still an open question whether a corporate statement of Confession needs to be recited every time we meet for worship, and just how it should be worded. Here are a few of the theological issues that need to be addressed as we look closer at the Confession:
Corporate vs. Individual
The Episcopal Church has not encouraged the tradition of the confessional booth as our Roman forebears have. Thus, the opportunity for individual confession is severely limited. Only the rarely-utilized sacramental rite of Reconciliation really meets this need in any liturgical way. Instead, we all say a confession together every time we meet, regardless of whether we’ve committed any sins or not since the last time we confessed. This is a wonderfully communal experience, binding us together in an important way. But it also erases any sense that we are repenting for sins we actually committed, since the experience is the same whether we sinned or not.
Additionally, there are no consequences implied for these sins, as there would be in a Roman Catholic confessional, with a certain number of Hail Marys or Our Fathers prescribed. I am not endorsing the Roman practice here, but rather suggesting that we may be getting the worst of both worlds. We are reminded consistently of our sinfulness, but not in a way that might spark deep reflection, remorse, or amendment of life.
While there may be opportunities for the latter, especially during penitential times like the Lenten season, my inclination is to draw back from the consistent reminder of our sinfulness, and use our corporate worship times to focus instead on God’s love for us, and our charge to love others and ourselves.
The other theological issue is the question of when our forgiveness for sins takes place. Unfortunately this setting is not appropriate for a full-on exploration of atonement theory, so I will settle for a brief statement of where I stand on the question.
In orthodox Christian belief, the work of Christ on the Cross did not simply enable God to forgive our sins when we ask. Instead, Jesus’ saving work was to effectually forgive all sins past, present and future. We no doubt expect to see the spiritual giants of the Old Testament (Noah, Abraham, Hagar, Moses, Ruth, David, etc) in heaven, and none of these had the opportunity to appeal to the blood of Christ for their forgiveness. The same holds true for children who tragically pass away before an age of accountability. If we can believe that the Cross achieved forgiveness for these, there is no reason to assume our own forgiveness is contingent upon a liturgical rite.
In other words, before you or I were born, our future sins were already forgiven. Thus, the purpose of offering repentance and receiving forgiveness is not to repair our relationship with God in effect. It is rather to re-orient our hearts to God after turning away. To put it more simply still, it is not to prompt God to forgive us, but rather to prompt us to forgive ourselves, forgive others, and make the needed change in our lives.
If this is the case, it should have a powerful bearing on how we talk about sin, repentance and forgiveness in our liturgy. While I don’t have a recommendation that would cover all these bases, I do have one that might represent a move in this direction.
Prayers of the People
The Prayers of the People section of the Eucharistic liturgy is the most customizable portion of the entire service. Most Episcopal churches tend to use one of the six suggestions offered by the Book of Common Prayer, and many Episcopalians aren’t even aware that this is optional. The BCP explicitly states that these prayers may be entirely original, and can very widely from one congregation to the next, and from one service to the next, so long as they cover a few specific topics. So I believe more Episcopal churches should be writing their own prayers!
Out of those six suggested forms of prayers, one of them (Form VI) actually contains a confession, at the end. When Form VI is utilized, any additional Confession would be redundant. Following any form of Prayers of the People is a Collect spoken by the Celebrant, and in this case, the Collect should include an Absolution.
Since the Prayers of the People are designed to be customized, and since Form VI includes a Confession, there is a liturgical opening here to write an original Confession within the structure of the Prayers of the People. So here is what I’m suggesting (First the full confession, then a line-by-line commentary)
The New Confession
All: God of all mercy, we confess that we have denied your goodness in each other, in ourselves, and in the world you have created. In your compassion forgive us for our sins, known and unknown, for the injustice we have caused and the injustice caused on our behalf. Forgive, restore and uphold us by your Spirit that we may live and serve you in newness of life, through Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen.
God of all mercy… Similar to the traditional address “Most merciful God” but a bit more contemporary, and signaling that there is something different coming.
We confess that we have denied your goodness… The word “sin” is not being removed altogether, but it is being demoted to a later appearance. When we think of “sin” we tend to think of an incurable disease that we are infected by, and it’s our fault. I believe it’s better to open our Confession with a reminder that God is good, and God has created us, and the world, to be good, but we have denied that goodness. This denial does not erase our goodness, but it does make a mess. And the more we deny it, the harder it gets to remember it again. Biblical theology points strongly to the idea that Reconciliation and Redemption are a process of restoring our working knowledge of the goodness of God, others and ourselves.
In your compassion forgive us for our sins… Whereas the traditional Confession tends to belabor the point that we have failed, the petition for forgiveness here comes up more quickly. This is also where the word “sin” first appears, but not until we have already mentioned forgiveness.
for the injustice we have caused… Enriching Our Worship offers a Confession that mentions “the evils we have done and the evils done on our behalf.” This New Confession draws inspiration from that reference to “structural sins”. Because we are confessing corporately, it is only appropriate that we should be calling out those imbalances in society that may benefit us, while oppressing others. And if this is the goal, I believe the word “injustice” achieves the effect much better than the word “evils”.
Forgive, restore and uphold us… This is also based on the language in the Confession from Enriching our Worship. As a trinitarian-style three-fold petition, appropriately beginning with forgiveness but then moving on to restoration and spiritual sustenance, to help us move onward and upward in our spiritual journey.
through Jesus Christ our Redeemer… Some are more favorable to the word “Redeemer” than others, as a reference to the second person of the Trinity. But here it could not be more perfect, as we are in the process of calling upon the redemptive love of Christ to restore us to God and to each other.
The New Absolution
Celebrant: All-loving God, we thank you for your endless mercy to forgive us every sin even before we ask. Remind us of our created goodness, strengthen us to forgive others, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, keep us in eternal life.
All-loving God… The traditional Absolution begins with “Almighty God”, and while God is indeed almighty, isn’t it more fitting, in the act of Confession, to call upon God’s love than God’s might?
We thank you for your endless mercy to forgive… In the New Confession we call upon God to forgive, but in the New Absolution, the Celebrant reminds the faithful that God’s forgiveness is already achieved by the work of Jesus. So, while we may ask for forgiveness, in the end we are really thanking God for having forgiven us already, even before we ask.
Remind us of our created goodness… This is in direct response to the admission in the New Confession that we have denied that created goodness.
Strengthen us to forgive others… per Jesus’ instruction that we pray that God will “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. We should really never ask for God’s forgiveness without also renewing our efforts to pay that forgiveness forward.
And by the power of the Holy Spirit, keep us in eternal life. I kept this phrase intact from the traditional Confession, because it’s a wonderful line. Notice that we are not asking for some future gift of eternal life, but recognizing that we are already living that eternal life. And what we are really praying is that God would help us remember this truth, day in and day out. Because of the once-and-for-all work of Jesus, and because of the moment-by-moment work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, we live a life that is truly eternal.